Friday, July 23, 2010

Ye Olde Perjury School

Charles A. Dunham (who also went by the names of James Watson Wallace and Sandford Conover) was born and raised in New York City but was living in the South when the Civil War broke out. Dunham was conscripted and served as a clerk in the rebel War Department at Richmond for six months before deserting. He then made his way to Washington where he landed a job as correspondent with the New York Tribune. In the months that followed, he advertised himself as something between a secret service agent and spy without an official employer.

When a reward of one hundred thousand dollars was advertised for anyone who could provide information leading to the arrest of those responsible for the assassination of President Lincoln, Dunham emerged as a primary source of evidence pointing to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Dunham appeared (as Sandford Conover) before a Military Commission at the trial of those charged with conspiring to assassinate Lincoln on May 20, 1865. He told the commission that he had acquainted himself with several important confederates while traveling throughout Canada and had firsthand knowledge of the fact that the heads of the Confederate government desired and actively pursued the assassination of President Lincoln, Vice-President Andrew Johnson, the secretary of war, the secretary of state, Judge Samuel Chase and General Ulysses S. Grant.

More powerfully, Dunham told the Military Commission that a primary ingredient in the Confederate plans was John Surratt, Mary's son. Thus, his testimony linked the assassination to the Confederate government and provided the linchpin for the prosecution of Surratt and the men who sat before the Military Commission in chains around her.

Mary Surratt and four others were hanged on July 8, 1865, and Dunham's testimony was a critical component of the trial. But, less than a full year later, a very different perspective emerged. Author Hudson Strode notes that it was discovered that Dunham had produced false testimony and evidence by recruiting "fakers from the underworld of Manhattan" to appear before Judge Advocate Joseph Holt of the Bureau of Military Investigation. General Dix had actually warned Holt that Dunham was a questionable character whose word demanded the corroboration of "witnesses of unquestionable credibility." But the spy with several names had planned ahead for the appearance of people like Dix.

Dunham actually spent days rehearsing character witnesses (like Richard Montgomery and James B. Merritt who corroborated his testimony on the same day before the Military Commission) in fake accents and deposition responses. He ran what another author calls a "veritable school for perjurers" at the National Hotel. In Dunham's view, it was all very much worth a portion of the one hundred thousand dollar reward on the head of Jefferson Davis.

Colonel L.C. Turner assisted the judiciary committee in the House of Representatives in an investigation however and Dunham's "diabolical fabrications" were exposed. Dunham fled, but was captured and immediately confessed.

Jonathan T. Dorris notes Dunham "began paving the way for a pardon during his trial and petitioned the President for a pardon for clemency on being found guilty." He was sentenced to ten years in prison. But Judge Joseph Holt continued to believe the conclusions of Dunham's fake testimony and supported his plea for a pardon.

President Johnson’s critics, Representative James Mitchell Ashley (Ohio) and Benjamin Butler visited Dunham/Conover in prison with some frequency. Ashley would later distinguish himself before a congressional committee by sharing his view that three presidents (Harrison, Taylor and Buchanan) "were poisoned for the express purpose of putting vice presidents in the presidential office." Before long, Representative Benjamin Wade (Ohio) and Senator Charles Sumner (Massachusetts) were dropping by for visits with Dunham. In his conversations with prison guards, Dunham began to refer to a “higher game” that he was playing. He also bragged to a cellmate that he would be out of jail “in a few days.” But Dunham’s conversations were, evidently, not so private as he and his visitors thought. President Johnson received a letter from a cellmate informing him that Dunham was plotting with his politician friends to charge the President with complicity in Lincoln’s assassination.

If there was any doubt in the President's mind, it vanished when Dunham sent in a petition for a presidential pardon. The petition contained a long letter, dated July 19, which explained an "atrocious plot" on behalf of Ashley and others. Dunham said politicians were seeking a pardon in his behalf so they could "use" him "as an instrument to accomplish their devilish designs." Dunham claimed that he was asked to produce witnesses who could testify that Johnson had actually met privately with John Wilkes Booth and corresponded with Booth on a regular basis. Other witnesses were to testify that Booth himself claimed that Johnson was aware of his plans to assassinate Lincoln.

Dunham confessed to the President that he had agreed to assist in the plot by procuring witnesses "of good standing and moral character" to prove the charges. And the president may very well have become a little more sympathetic with Dunham as a result of this amazing information. But Johnson let the star witness remain in prison until the end of the term! The pardon came on February 11, 1869.

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